Wed to Welsh heritage

19th September 2003 at 01:00
The former quarry village of Nant Gwrtheyrn is now the home of an unusual language and cultural centre. Ross Davies reports

A wedding in a language centre may not sound romantic, but Claire Hind and Steven Davis knew what they were up to when they chose to tie the knot at the Nant.

Wedding ceremonies are just one of the services offered by this self-financing Welsh language and heritage centre. It is based in Nant Gwrtheyrn, a former quarry village in a remote deep valley on the Llyn peninsula in Gwynedd.

The bride's great-grandfather had worked in the village at the turn of the last century when granite was quarried to pave the roads of Liverpool and Manchester.

Aled Jones-Griffith, chief executive of "the Nant", says he and his staff see it as their job to marry non-Welsh speakers using the ancient language of Wales.

"Nant Gwrtheyrn is the only centre in Wales which offers intensive residential courses in Welsh language, culture and environment all year round," says Jones-Griffith.

Nant Gwrtheyrn is well-placed as a bastion of all things Celtic. In English, its name is "Valley of Vortigern" after a fifth-century prince of south-east Britain who, according to Bede, invited the Saxons to Britain to help him against the Picts.

But the Saxons turned on Vortigern, who legend has it, then retreated to make a last stand in this deep valley. The only way in and out of Nant Gwrtheyrn is via a vertiginous, corkscrew road, with mountains on three sides and the Irish Sea on the fourth.

About 25,000 people have attended courses in the 25 years since a local trust resuscitated the old quarry village as a residential centre. Classes, at all levels from beginners upwards, are held in the former quarry manager's house, and students share the former quarrymen's cottages during their stay.

A key group of language students, says Nant Gwrtheyrn's Eleri Williams, are workers, some from outside Wales, who have been offered jobs in parts of the country where Welsh is essential.

"For centuries, Welsh was not considered to be an official language," Williams says. "In 1997, however, the Welsh language Act was amended to require all public bodies to be bilingual, and today many public-service employers, Gwynedd County Council for example, require all employees either to be bilingual or to commit to learning Welsh within a certain period of time."

There is also a "writing skills for the workplace" course. Williams explains: "Even today, some employees whose first language is Welsh may lack the confidence to use it in an official capacity at work, in letters and so on."

About 80 per cent of the Llyn's inhabitants speak Welsh, although the proportion for Gwynedd as a whole is lower and falling, down 3.1 per cent to 69 per cent, compared with 10 years ago.

Nationally, however, Welsh is doing well. Welsh Language Board chairman Rhodri Williams says: "In the face of substantial decline in the fortunes of minority languages in every part of the world, it is immensely gratifying to be able to announce that the Welsh language is on the up."

Analysis of the 2001 census results this year is claimed by the board to show the first increase ever in both the number and percentage of Welsh speakers.

Of a population of just underthree million, 20.8 per cent, or 582,368, regard themselves as speaking Welsh. This is 72,000 up on the 1991 census, when 18.7 per cent - 508,098 people - said they spoke the language.

Nant Gwrtheyrn says it can offer competitively-priced Welsh courses for adults thanks to subsidies from Education and Learning Wales.

Ann Jenkins, head of bilingual learning at ELWa, says: "Nant Gwrtheyrn provides an excellent residential opportunity for Welsh learners. It's a venue where you can stay and use the language while you are there. That's valuable for those learners who, say, come from the more anglicised parts of Wales where they would not have the opportunity of hearing Welsh about them."

There are German and Dutch students, as well as Welsh expatriates from North America, the Commonwealth and Patagonia taking residential courses, says Eleri Williams. There is also an increasing number of students from England.

Vortigern's stand is said to have ended when, in despair, he hurled himself into the sea from one of Nant Gwrtheryn's crags. Today, visitors from over the border are friendlier. Some of them even get married.

Contact: Nant Gwrtheyrn, Llithfaen, Pwllheli, Gwynedd LL53 6PA. Tel. 01758 750334.E-mail. post@nantgwrtheryn.org. Website: www.nantgwrtheyrn.org

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